Presented by Jeff Tarrant: Virtual reality (VR) is a computer-generated environment that simulates a realistic experience in three-dimensional space. While this technology has been primarily associated with the video game industry, it is increasingly being utilized as a clinical intervention for a variety of medical and mental health concerns (Rizzo & Koenig, 2017). As a mental health intervention, VR has primarily been used as a sophisticated addition to exposure therapy in the treatment of phobias (e.g., fear of heights, flying, etc.; Lamson, 1994; Rothbaum et al., 1995).
In part, the success of these programs appears to be based on the understanding that immersive environments, such as those provided in VR, can generate strong feelings of â€œpresenceâ€ (Waterworth et al., 2010, 2014; Riva et al., 2011; Riva and Waterworth, 2014; Waterworth and Riva, 2014). â€œPresence,â€ in this context, is defined as the subjective feeling of being in another place and is a crucial element in exposure and distraction-based therapies. Because VR is immersive, it should not be surprising that this format can provide more presence than 2-dimensional scenes (Chirico et al., 2017).
Based on this understanding, some VR programs have created specific environments designed to induce a relaxation response. These programs tend to layer elements that have demonstrated effectiveness in stress management programs, such as exposure to nature, mindfulness, and soothing music (Tarrant, et al., 2018). Not surprisingly, some companies have created VR and AR systems that interface with various bio- and neuromodulation techniques, including EEG and HRV. Early research suggests that this combination may provide a powerful tool to assist those working to manage clinical anxiety disorders.
In this presentation, we will explore consumer and clinical programs that combine bio/neurofeedback with both virtual and augmented reality as an intervention for chronic stress and anxiety. The presenter will summarize results and limitations of 4 original studies demonstrating the impact of therapeutic VR/AR experiences on brainwave activity, anxiety, and mood states. These studies have demonstrated that a brief mindfulness in nature VR experience can significantly shift brainwave patterns associated with the stress response while a control condition does not (Tarrant, et al., 2018). Other results have demonstrated significant increases in subjective feelings of calm and happiness while significantly reducing feelings of tension, anger, and depression (Tarrant et al., 2019). Early results combining VR and AR with a consumer grade EEG headband have demonstrated shifts in frontal asymmetry (Tarrant & Cope, 2018), as well as increased motivation and likelihood of future use (Tarrant et al., in press). In addition to clarifying the current state of this work, the presentation will explore future directions, integration of VR with clinical neurofeedback systems, and strategies for using consumer-based programs as adjunctive training for specific client populations.